Where does your identity lie?
Today we celebrate Heritage Sunday. It is a day to think about who we are and whose we are as Christians and as Presbyterians. We are part of a long faith tradition. Our worship service today includes scripture and segments from the various confessions that we hold to as a church. As part of Heritage Sunday, I would like to lift up the Barmen Declaration, one of our confessions, and speak to a bit about it’s time because the writers of the Barmen Declaration drew upon Galatians and other works of Paul.
As you know, the landscape in Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s and 40’s was not a simple one – politics, economics, nationalism, global dynamics and other factors created a perfect storm of sorts out of which Hitler would rise.
Third Reich theology, oversimplified, subverted the church under the state, claiming the authority of God in Christ for the Reich. In 1933 one of the largest churches in Germany held a national convention. The convention slogan was, “The State of Adolf Hitler appeals to the Church and the church has to hear his call.” Think about that. “The church has to hear his call.”
In August of 1934, military and government officials were compelled to sign an unconditional oath of personal allegiance to Hitler.
In September of 1934, the largest church in the nation was assimilated to the state.
In November of 1934, a Nazi leader named Dr. Reinhold Krause delivered a speech stating that the Third Reich would complete the formation of a new church, “mighty all-embracing German national church.” The first step, he went on, was to get rid of the Old Testament with its Jewish morality of rewards and its stories of cattle dealers and panders” and to purge the New Testament of all superstitious passages. And exaggerated view of the Crucified was to be avoided, he said, and a “heroic” Jesus proclaimed.
The church integrated more and more under and into the Third Reich, losing its identity in and under Hitler’s reign.
This fortunately did not go unnoticed, nor was it completely ignored by many pastors and elders throughout the nation. A Pastor’s Emergency League was formed in September of 1933 and called pastors to give written assurance to one another that they would be bound in their preaching by the Holy Scriptures and the Confessions of the Reformation, and that they would support one another and particularly support those who would suffer for their loyalty to scripture and confession. Within the next three to four months, 7,000 pastors and congregations would sign this assurance.
Who the church was and what the church’s mission in the world was - - these most basic things were at stake. The Third Reich sought to move the church away from being the church of God in the world for all people of the world, to being the church of the Reich for the sake and power of the Reich.
Standing in 2017, it seems so obvious that the path of Hitler was not the path of God, but in the swirl of all of those forces and influences of the time on the German landscape, the cross of Christ was rather quickly becoming subjugated to the flag of the Third Reich under a regime that sought to make its own version of Scripture and Tradition and claim the power of God for itself, justifying its actions and dominance in the world.
We human beings go off track with our identity much more easily than we might like to admit. Paul is shocked that the Galatians – having experienced the presence and power of the Holy Spirit by faith, would now be tempted and even convinced that they needed the law.
This temptation to the Law was essentially saying that you can’t come to salvation apart from the Law – Jew and Gentile would then not be equal as it would require Gentiles to first become Jews. Salvation would no longer be through the cross, but revert back again to the law. Why would you do this? Paul asks them. The law served its purpose and that purpose has come to an end. It is not a means of resurrection and life. And least of all should it be allowed to restrict the access of Gentile Christians to receiving the inheritance that God Promised to Abraham.
God is opening the way to bring the world in, not narrowing the point of entry to screen people out by the Law.
Paul reminds the Galatians that in Christ in their baptisms they were made new. You have clothed yourselves with him - - you are all one - - there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. If you belong to Christ, you are an heir to the promise that Abraham received. They had forgotten their identity, been swayed by these missionaries among them, forgotten they were clothed in Christ. They had taken their eyes off of God.
And in the time of Paul, the missionaries to the Galatians did not lack faith, but they had made an idol out of the law. Similarly, under the Third Reich, much of the Christian community had lost focus on God and put Hitler and the Reich up above God.
The Confessing Church, the church that rose out of the Pastor’s Emergency League, rose against the Third Reich and Hitler’s attempt to integrate the church under his authority. Pastors and elders of the confessing Church gathered in 1934 and wrote the Barmen Declaration, one of our confessions. This declaration has at its basis strong resistance to putting anything in the place of God – not just in worship, but in all of life. The theologians and church leaders who wrote this statement drew heavily from the word of the Apostle Paul in Galatians, remembering that it is Jew or Greek but one in Christ. And for their service and dedication to Christ and the Gospel, some were imprisoned, and some were killed.
As we celebrate Heritage Sunday today, we have an amazing opportunity to stop and think about the people of faith who have gone before us – Paul, John Knox, John Calvin, Martin Neimoller, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and to draw from the wisdom of Scripture and the dedicated efforts of those who by the power of the Holy Spirit authored the confessions that provide us with great wisdom up until today.
And for today, and the future? Where does our identity lie? In Jesus Christ. You are clothed in him through your baptism. Do not be swayed by friend or foe, pride or greed, principality or power to take anything upon yourself as your identity other than Christ Jesus. You are in Christ and in Christ alone.
Our human impulse tirelessly seeks new signs and ceremonies, and allegiances to set ourselves apart and try to court God’s favor. But thanks be to God that in Christ all of that has been put to an end.
Our identity is in Jesus. May we be clothed in him completely and in him only.
All glory be to you, O Lord. Amen.